Inquiry

To Study One’s World

“[I]n many contexts the term ‘world’ is used not to refer to the external world, either in the sense of what we see, or of the planet earth in space, or of the universe as a whole, but, rather, to stand for or signify the ‘world’ of an individual: one’s world.”
– Hamilton-Blyth, Sue. Early Buddhism: A New Approach: The I of the Beholder (Routledge Critical Studies in Buddhism) (p. 93). Taylor and Francis.
I think that’s what phenomenologist Husserl’s concept of ‘lifeworld’ was meant to convey, in the first half of the twentieth century. The Nikaya Buddha used the word ‘loka’ in a like fashion. It could be used, as we do, to refer to the bigger worlds – our peopled world, or our planet, or our universe – and our world of immediate experience. We say “I really get his world.” Just as, when we speak of the ‘world-view’ of the ancient Greeks (or whomever), we are referring to how they experienced the situations they were in – the way they ‘had’ the bigger peopled world, planet, and universe, as experience.
It was this that the Buddha was primarily interested in: How we can become attuned to, transform, and eventually transcend our individual ‘world within the world.’ Where else does the ‘tangle within a tangle’ get untangled?
It seems to me that he approached this by indicating the kinds of experiences we will find as we become familiar with our ‘loka.’ (This ‘loka’ concept, as I see it, was later elaborated into the ‘maṇḍala’ practices of later Buddhism. To know your own subjective world in all its dynamism is to acquaint yourself with a mandala – that is, with a experiential sphere that has (subjectively remember) a centre and periphery.)
The four mindfulnesses – physical body (with death), feeling-tones, mind-states and the dynamics between them – are one such model of what you will find in your ‘loka,’ your experiential world.
The model of the ‘six senses’ (which I’m expanding into seven, to update it) is another important perspective on one’s world as one directly has it in experience. And, so that’s why I’m going into the fine detail of the sensory fields – as a means to becoming intimately equated with our experienced life, both as we imagine it is, and how it actually is.
There’s a sense of something precious that comes with the history of use of the word ‘loka.’ According to Sue Hamilton-Blyth, the word predates the Buddha and is Vedic: “It’s earliest meaning was a “free, open space” or a “safe, sacred space.” We needn’t lose that meaning, though we’ll not be staying with that alone, but will be delving deeply into its metaphorical meanings, and the problems that inevitably come with our ‘world within the world,’ as it usually functions. So, here, notice that the word ‘space’ goes with ‘loka.’ Space itself, in our personal world, is a sense worth exploring, which brings a richness of meaning.

The Body and the Lifeworld

In line with our understanding that language is about experiencing in situations – and not about establishing ultimate realities, existences, and things – I’m going to make some statements about the living actuality of sensory living. The experience of the fork with food making its way to your mouth; of lifting the kitchen trash and walking to the door. The actual experience of the hot sun, or the freezing wind.

The following statements can’t claim that reality is ultimately the way we have it; but, even with that being so, even so, our speaking is not arbitrary. We can’t just say any old thing and expect to get a healthy relationship with life, as some people like to think. Yet, we have to talk about the heat and cold, and about fork, food, and trash. In this approach, I contend that speaking and thinking works even better when we have some relationship with the implicit ‘more’ which informs our saying, and which is carried forward by our saying; a relationship with the wildness that the big life process is. There can be, by the virtue of this body’s participation in reality, a relationship of concepts to the ‘non-conceivable’ universe, a relationship which will give us a more harmonious life. And, this is possible, because we are that life, and we co-create that bigger life.

Mary Hendrix stated (in the video Thinking at the Edge in 14 Steps) the main problem of our present ways of thinking: “The concepts that we use in our society are based on science and ‘things,’ and they have built into them structures that drop out the lived human body experience. So that anything we go to think about, if we are using this kind of prevalent concept, it has already dropped out the living person.”

Ironically, I find this among spiritually-inclined cultures, too, when speaking to people about the role our body plays in spirituality. To many meditators, the body is a ‘temple,’ a ‘vehicle,’ a ‘way-station.’ It’s a thing that serves consciousness. It’s a junior partner of lesser intelligence than the process they prefer to exalt, expand, purify, or dwell wholly within; that is, ‘consciousness.’ It’s ironic that we lose the person when we separate ‘mind’ from ‘body.’

With such topsy-turvy concepts, our experience of the living body becomes tragically limited; limited by the very concepts which, from a developmental point of view, the body gave rise to in the first place! The particularly ephemeral process of thinking has tragically reduced its own matrix (the body as a local process of the vast universe) to a secondary role. This split from nature skews everything human in the direction of our ego systems. Isabella, in Shakespeare’s  Measure for Measure (II.ii), sums the situation up beautifully:
But man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven,
As make the angels weep
.”

Read ‘thought’ for ‘man,’ and ‘body’ for ‘essence,’ and you have the roots of our modern crises: we’ve left our own nature out of the picture. As a by the way, here, with Isabella’s word ‘glassy,’ she points to an experienceable ‘body of light’ or ‘body of clarity’ –  an experience which we’ll look at that later. At this stage my point, though, is that words like ‘glassy.’ ‘light,’ ‘clarity,’ and ‘transparency,’ are not words people associate with the body; and that this is because we’ve become dissociated from our actual body, and treat it as a secondary intelligence, rather than as primary. A healthier, more experience-near approach is Gendlin’s:
There is the absolutely best laboratory – as far as we know, at least – in the whole cosmos; which you can have access to; because the absolute best laboratory in the whole cosmos – which has a direct line into whatever everything is – that’s a human being. And you have that with you. So anything that comes out of that laboratory, has great possibilities – even if it looks like a very small thing.”
– Eugene T. Gendlin, Thinking at the Edge (Five Tape Video Series), opening to Tape 5, Gems from Gene (produced by Nada Lou).

This point to a very different body than is commonly imagined in our society. I’m not dismissing or denigrating the scientific portrayal of our body, however. That approach is powerfully useful. Nevertheless, we have to find a balance in approaches. For the sake of our humanity, and for the well-being of all the planet’s species, our emphasis in the context of inner transformation needs to move to the primacy in our experience of the living body. This sentient body is the primary process of a human being, the functioning of which gives rise to your ‘world,’ your ‘lifeworld.’ The extraordinary world of the ordinary – the bodily activities of walking, sitting, singing, speaking, eating, defecating, and even simply breathing – can, with intimate knowledge, reveal levels of ‘mind’ or ‘consciousness’ that have no limit.

The ‘world’ of this actual, living, time-conducting body is exactly the action of the bigger life interacting with itself. And, as a part of that interacting life, the body produces representations about its fluid, non-graspable situations – images and abstractions about body-environment interaction, and which are meant to carry life forward – even though the body itself is non-representable. The body, as life, is non-ikonic.
“The body is a nonrepresentational concretion of (with) its environment.”
– Gendlin, Eugene. A Process Model (Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy). Northwestern University Press.

So, to say it again: the situation of being one ever-changing, mortal individual in an immeasurably vast ever-changing cosmos is very intimate. It’s your actual sensing; a sensing which is because the vast universe IS. The irony, though, is that we do in fact have a ‘little brief authority,’ in that we are individually and alone responsible for the health of our ‘world within the world.’ Through the activity of the senses and intellect, to participate successfully within the larger world, the body creates its own world.

As we investigate the actual day-to-day living of our body-intelligence, in all its conditions – while delighted, dissociated, despairing or depressed – we become can familiar with how we create the world via our ‘world.’ It’s happening right here. The most reliable ‘laboratory’ is this your very body – the only place practically devoted to conducting these efficient investigations in the natural science of the person. This, indeed, is where your experience of the world happens. It is the path. Says the Nikāya Buddha, “It is right here in this fathom-long mortal body (Pali: kalebara), with its perception & thoughts, that I say that there is the world, the origination of the world, the cessation of the world, and the path of the cessation of the world,” (AN.4.45)

Why Famiarise Yourself with Now?

“[N]either time nor place affects the fact that we are common experiencing human beings.” – Hamilton-Blyth, Sue. Early Buddhism: A New Approach: The I of the Beholder (p. 61).

The understanding is cross-cultural and perennial that we don’t live anywhere else but in or as our present experiencing; and that we can at least live well, if not flourish, by minimising our dissociation from present experiencing.

It comes as a surprise to some that what ‘present’ means can be debated; but I’ll leave it imprecise, for now. What’s not so contentious is the importance of sensory experience for flourishing; and, as you have seen, Buddhist culture includes “mental content” as a sensory dimension.

In the following, I refer these sensory dimensions collectively, sometimes as ‘experience,’ and sometimes as ‘experiencing’, and sometimes as ‘lifeworld.’ They represent the range of ‘happenings’ occurring in any moment or situation. Before I give a kind of model – that is, before I detail the ‘seven’ – to aid tracking the happenings of this open and yet precise sphere of Being, I want to give a picture of the power of such models, vis-a-vis death and deathlessness.

This contextualization will briefly introduce:
– the importance of personal experience in the context of Early Buddhist liberation;
– the concept of ‘lifeworld’;
– one’s individual world-within-the-world (loka);
– the nature of sensory life;
– the implicit order in one’s lifeworld (the presence of a greater responsive order, implicit in the ‘All’ of experiencing);
– mindfulness in the context of this non-conceptual aspect of reality, and its the open-ended flow;
– and, the power of Early Buddhism’s invitation to experience ‘space’

That should be enough of an introduction to what you are experiencing right now!

The Importance of Starting from a Non-Manifold Perspective
So, why did I consider this intro necessary, if the various dimensions of sense are here now and verifiable? Because usually we look without a context which would help us see the new. Have you heard about that great experiment about the gorilla on the basketball court (which I would say was an experiment in mindlessness, or mindless ‘relevanting)? It was carried out at Harvard University. (That’s not meant to be harsh, but descriptive of how we are much of the time.)

The experiments asked their subjects to watch a short video (see it here) in which six people pass basketballs around. The subjects were asked to keep a track of the number of passes made by certain of the people in the video. During the ball-passing, a gorilla walked into the middle of the action, faced the camera and beat his chest, then left. Half the people who watched the video, counting the passes, and did not see the gorilla!

Of course, that wouldn’t happen to you and I, would it? Or would it? What are we missing that is right here in front of our noses which we are missing moment to moment? The unbroken flow of experience might be the gorilla in our personal world. The intuitive, holistic dimension of experience is as invisible to the untrained person as that gorilla was to those subjects. What if what is relevant to us is limiting of life-opportunities? Would we know it?

Normally, we experience our various senses as broken up into separate ‘channels.’ However, it’s possible to experience them differently – as undivided; and as a result of such an experience, how we relate to the ‘world’ around is transformed. We realise that the ‘objective world’ and our senses inter-relate in such an inextricable way that we can’t actually tease out where our senses end and the world begins. This is the territory of the insight into interdependence of an everything in everything (ev-eving) kind.

The Nikāya Buddha emphasised that we need to know our sensory experience (including mind-states, remember); because, any sense that there is an objective ‘world’ to be experienced is directly dependent on our six (as he taught them) sensory processes.

The primary focus of Nikāya Buddha’s training was on immediacy, on how each of us perceives our personal world now; because to live wisely, we must know our experiencing as it actually is. His point was that what his teaching had to be tested by each of us, in the laboratory of this very body:
“Practitioners, do you not speak that which is known by yourselves, seen by yourselves, found by yourselves?”
“Yes, sir!”
“It is well, Practitioners! You have been instructed by me in this timeless teaching which can be seen here and now and which invites your testing; which leads to the goal [of inner freedom]; and can be understood individually by the intelligent.”
Mahatanhasankhaya Sutta (MN 38)

That’s the first point.

Our Ancestral Territory

The questions that follow [in Visions of Knowledge] advocate no particular view. Their assumptions are open to being challenged; their conclusions should be considered provisional. If we ask in ways that are incisive and clear, our questions do not have to lead to answers. In asking openly, we create support for knowledge, and then our inquiry cannot fail.” – Tarthang Tulku, Visions of Knowledge
Openness is a kind of knowing upon which our inquiry can depend. Indeed, openness intrinsically has a fine quality of inquiry. And, the need for openness is applicable, too, when we make statements (as distinct from questions, mentioned in this quote). If we are dwelling openly, our statements – negative or affirmative – can act as prompts for further inquiry; even if that inquiry is only the act of appreciation. Open interchange carries a conversation forward (as the combination of ‘inter-’ and ‘change’ implies).
As a writer of Dharma, I dance between saying what I know to be so and the openness that in itself is not sayable. Although the openness is always present, I have to zig-zag. I am mindful of not turning the saying into some kind of fixed knowledge – which is to create fictions in the service of my self-image. The awareness that this living is open by nature, helps me avoid being dogmatic. (Sometimes I hear the student come into my voice, and I know to pause.)
The dilemma of such knowing is nicely put by the Nikāya Buddha (in the Kālakarāma Sutta): “All the things that people and gods know, I know too. But I don’t conceive of any thing in or behind what is experienced.”  (Don’t quote it. This is a summary for our specific purpose; yet, the gist is accurate.) He follows this up with: “This snag I beheld, long ago, upon which humankind is hooked, is impaled, which is: ‘I know, I see, ‘tis truly so.’” How will we live, in ordinary situations, and not be run by our opinions, beliefs, principles, or tenets; that is, by our ‘dogmas’?
If such a radical change of heart is to be optimally secured in humanity – safely come upon, and yet remain fresh in its transformative freedom – whatever is claimed to be ‘true’ or ‘known’ can’t be imposed from without; not by gods, nor culture. For such a change to be a “turning-about in the deepest seat of consciousness” (Lankavatara Sutra),  it has to come from directly knowing our experience.
When our senses are not grasped at – and we thoroughly let them be in their own reach and range – there’s a fundamental revolution in knowing, where even to speak of separate senses is not correct. This realization is the fruit of openness. Openness is the way and the fruit. Clearly, this kind of self-knowledge is radically intimate. It’s an open connection to a basic quality of life which is ‘already-always’ available.
(By the way, while reading “seat of consciousness,” how did you register the word ‘seat,’ in yourself, as you read? Did you vaguely imagine it as something static, fixed, or located; as somewhat thing-ish? A solid base? That would be natural, wouldn’t it, to give it spaciality? However, we want to leave such terms open to a process-use, which won’t establish any such ‘seat’ as actually findable. The word ‘seat,’ here, has to mean something active – even vividly living – right? Let’s not freeze the image; because, it points to experience.)
So, what exactly are we directly knowing, such that our fixities – for instance, our constructions: I am here, something is there, and there’s a ‘between’ – dissolve? Traditionally, the Nikāya Buddha named this knowledge that we need to develop as ‘the six’: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and cognizing (which has usually been interpreted as knowing mental events). It was, for him, comprehensive:
“What is the All?” he said. “Simply, it’s: the eye & forms, ear & sounds, nose & smells, tongue & tastes, body & tactile sensations, intellect & mental content.”
I’ve expanded them because modern knowledge includes a lot of subtleties. In a recent post, I spoke of them as ‘the eight,’ but now I’m condensing them into seven – “seven domains of sensory life.” The names, by which I hope to encompass all that we currently designate as knowable are: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, interoception, and symbolizing.
The purpose of the lists is not merely to clarify the known for scientific progress (not in itself an unworthy purpose, of course) but in the Buddhist tradition it has always been for direct self-knowledge. So, next I’ll unpack the ancestral territory that we have available for deepening the inquiry into death, these seven domains of sense. The takeaway from the above paragraphs, though, is to be wary, during this analysis, of foreclosing our inquiry by assuming that our names, and the forms we discern, are the reality of the body. The body doesn’t actually have parts or opposites. It is an open cycle functioning, so our thinking about the body with its body-environment interaction via the linguistic gestures of ‘parts,’ ‘categories’ and other names, is meant to point to movements of an undivided process, an undivided multiplicity.

Postscript on Consensus Trance

As soon as I wrote that piece about the consensus trance, I thought that I’d follow up with a further note. It’s been a while, so I’ll set some context: It’s usual since Freud for us to seek the cause of our discontent in deficiencies generated in our family of origin. What the consensus trance concept does is broaden this, so that we look at the way that society shapes us, to fit in with its values, and its dominant ideology (which in the West, includes tracing personality difficulties to family of origin). Since Marx, we can see a lot of our suffering also originates on the societal level – particularly with the injustice of unequal distribution of capital and other opportunities. There’s all this, and more – for I haven’t gone into the madness and violence of the inheritors of medieval religious beliefs.

However, the acquired patterns of culture are not all we have to clarify, to see nature, death, and ourselves in perspective. Beneath all this are the ‘innate’ patterns, brought along from our animal past and even from cellular life itself. We weren’t born a blank slate. We were born with our inherited predispositions, which, ironically, can obscure our relationship with nature, if they aren’t made conscious. However, many beliefs about ‘nature’ obscure this territory.

Even if we didn’t acquire dulling predispositions, through our conventional conceptual training in this lifetime, we still would have, in our mental continuum, tendencies which were established by our plant and animal forebears. To live harmoniously with each other and with the biospher, these tendencies, too, we need to uncover and transform into a new level of functioning – even if they are harder to see and change than the patterns of the consensus trance.

I don’t see that the animal level is being named very usefully; partly because it is dominated by a particular myth in science. That is, the dominant ‘trance’ in this area is enhanced, these days, by conventional evolutionist scientists. They provide us with a major thread in the current version of consensus trance. (Current? Consensus trances are not new – ask Socrates. Ask Hypatia or Galileo.)
The views propagated by conventional science, run like this: The universe is some kind of dumb ‘material’ or ‘physical’ stuff – ‘things’ in movement. They move in something which, ever since Newton at the turn of the seventeenth century, is imagined as absolute time and absolute space. (It’s ironic that Newton also believed in an absolute God, who was supposed to be somewhere out there, too.)

Apparently, in this story, time and space are somewhere running the show, and are independent of our conceiving. So, in this kind of time and space, a material universe pops up and evolves randomly, running mechanically, once certain chains of billiard-ball-like activity have been set somehow in motion. It’s a dead universe which gives rise to living organisms; which never are other than versions of material stuff, matter.

In this model, intelligence enters the picture with humans, or at least with primates. We are ‘homo sapiens,’ ‘wise man.’ (Yes – ‘Man.’ A nomenclature which we haven’t yet corrected, but surely it wouldn’t be a difficult move?)

No-one has shown convincingly how it is that a non-living material universe gave rise to sapience, to a creature with intelligence. Neither has this stuff (that is, ‘matter’) ever been discovered. However, this belief is comforting (for scientists) because it apparently makes nature predictable (for scientists); that is, it gives them a deterministic universe – if we can only work out the ‘laws’ of the material stuff.

One harmful consequence of this belief in ultimate ‘matter’ is that natural processes – such as the body – are treated as machine-like. The metaphor of the machine is propagated in conventional science training at all levels. There are scientists now spending millions and millions of dollars on projects aimed at storing the information in human brains (as much of it as they can get), so that machines can have it. Some of them hypothesise that there wouldn’t be any real difference between such a machine (a robot) and a human.

(This is not too different from what I was told by many an adult, when I was in my late questing teens, during the Vietnam War: You can’t stop war, because humans have always been this way, and will be this way forever. Determinism.)

So, this modern ‘materialism’ is all part of the consensus trance, too. My point, though, in this ‘footnote,’ is that all these beliefs are acquired on top of one’s natural state at birth; one’s nature – which is not perfected, or perhaps not even perfectable; but, which, one experientially accessed, can be worked with. However, by and large, these patterns remain unexamined and foundational for one’s sense of presence, because the consensus trance is not dealt with.

And, if we don’t know who we are, as life-process – if we simply go along in the trance – how do we know what death is? When no longer entranced, we might be able to understand what poet W.B. Yeats meant when he wrote: “Man has created death.”

Consensus Trance

It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
– Attributed to J. Krishnamurti

The search for authenticity is an ennobling quest. The early Buddhist teachings value highly the ‘true person.’ Yet, we are born ignorant of what is going on here, and are introduced to ‘what is going on here’ by people who haven’t clarified the matter themselves. Truth isn’t loved in societies generally.

‘Consensus trance’ is a term I got from consciousness researcher Charles Tart. When I became acquainted with his work, Tart wasn’t centrally interested in death. He was more interested in what unusual states of mind could tell us about human possibilities.

Later he wrote about near-death experiences and was interested in what happens to consciousness after death. What happens after death is not a core interest in my project (though later, I’ll enquire into the usefulness of the rebirth concept).

However, his idea of the susceptibility of children to hypnotic suggestion, grabbed my attention. It offers modern support for how consciousness gets so dissociated from nature generally and from its own nature.

In Tart’s book Waking Up: The Obstacles to Human Potential, he made a credible case for concluding that children are inducted by their parents – the unwitting agents of their culture – into a ‘consensus trance’ which reflects the states of consciousness approved in their society.

Tart compared the suggestibility of children to the criteria for hypnosis suggestibility in psychology labs. Moreover, he suggests that parents can do things that no university laboratory would be allowed to do, by ethical standards: they can withdraw love, for instance, when the ‘subject’ is not co-operating; or worse, they can use physical violence to reinforce their lessons. His case was backed up by his years as a researcher at Stanford University.

In case you are interested in reading a stark description of the trance induction – of how our parents bring us into the consensus trance – then I recommend you read Charles Tart; chapter 10 of Waking Up: The Obstacles to Human Potential. It’s chilling.

At the end of the chapter, he writes:
“But,” you might well say, “I don’t feel like I’m in a trance!” Of course not. We think of trance as something unusual, and our ordinary state as usual. We only realise we are in a trance state by reasoning about it… and/or by experiencing what it is like to be out of trance, to be awake.

And that is the purpose of mindfulness practice. ‘Experiencing what it is like to be out of trance, to be awake.’ A person waking up “dwells contemplating the body in the body… feeling-tones in feeling-tones… psyche in psyche… and the dynamics of phenomena in the dynamics of phenomena – ardent, comprehending clearly, present, having removed hankering and distaste with regard to the world.” (Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta). This means becoming independent of socity’s values.

There is a way forward. Once mindfulness is engaged there’s nothing – even trance – that isn’t a doorway to the real life, if we just turn our head a little in the right direction, or maybe start to just look out of the corner of our eye, at how we are really.

A place to start is just to entertain the possibility that being alive could be felt more authentically than it presently is; though, we might have to whisper it, because it’s still not common, being an authentic human.

A Story That Could Be True
by William Stafford

If you were exchanged in the cradle and
your real mother died
without ever telling the story
then no one knows your name,
and somewhere in the world
your father is lost and needs you
but you are far away.

He can never find
how true you are, how ready.
When the great wind comes
and the robberies of the rain
you stand on the corner shivering.
The people who go by –
you wonder at their calm.

They miss the whisper that runs
any day in your mind,
“Who are you really, wanderer?”–
and the answer you have to give
no matter how dark and cold
the world around you is:
“Maybe I’m a king.”

*

Speaking About Death

So, in respect of the many situations where the word ‘death’ is used, are we attuning to our bodies’ responses; and do we know how to venture into the unknown freshly?

It is the “sphere of experience that should be known” (said the Nikāya Buddha in the Kāmaguṇa-sutta, SN 35.117)

I’m reminded that so early in our project so many of the words that I’m using can’t yet mean to you what I want them to mean. We will have to work with them, until they bear new meanings, until they mean freshly.

I’ve think I’ve made it clear that this is so with the word ‘death,’ but what of other words which I’ve used – words like: ‘body,’ ‘insight,’ and ‘inside’ – especially the way that I’ve used ‘inside’? I wrote: “Can we have a taste of the view of death from the inside?” What kind of ‘inside’ can this be? Even in this last decade of my fifty-year Buddhist inquiry, my experience of ‘inside’ has changed and deepened radically.

How do we find fresh life for the old words, words we meet everyday? Words don’t only accumulate meanings to become a fixed stock. They can be renewed – extended – by our whole-bodied, present use of them. A word’s use can feed back into its accumulated meanings, carrying concepts forward freshly, in line with our living – if we let it.

We do this in the same manner that we did as children: by resonating words against our feel of the situations. Words point to our being-in-situations – they find their meaning in bodily interactions.

How conscious are we, then, of the power of our speaking and thinking? When someone uses a significant word, I want to know to what experience the speaker is pointing, before assuming that I understand their meaning. Our conversations need to demonstrate in what way the words are meant. We have taken too much for granted.

For instance, I’m not one to use the ‘God’ word. But, if I’m talking to a thoughtful Christian, once we’ve got clear what kind of experience the word is pointing to for them, then I can use it with them. We might not always meet in the concepts, but we can meet in the experiences which they are meant to carry forward.

So, when talking about death, I try to show how I uncover, or invite, the experiences that I am naming. Recently I was talking with several people who were using ‘death’ in two main ways, but they hadn’t distinguished what these two ways were doing differently for them. It helped the conversation for us to get that distinction clear. I pointed out that the two meanings which they seem to be confusing were:
1) death as the ‘over-there/out-there’ experience; dependent mostly on knowing the physical death of others; death of an object; and,
2) death as experienced; death intimately.

The group could then begin to explore the idea of dying ‘before you die,’ once they had the insight that they were mixing up or collapsing two meanings under one label. Now they could feel each reference to death differently.

Through your bodily feel, you too can do the experiments and verify the meaning of the words for yourself. Here, in this project, I’m trying to show, as I go, how I use language, to free us from concepts. Let concepts serve us, not we serve them.

On your side, can you do reality-reading? As you read you remain aware of your body’s posture, its breath, its sensory presentations, its feelings, its felt meanings, and its thoughts – all in continuous flow? Can we not get lost in the words but refer them back to the ‘one who knows’ – our bodily interactional intelligence?

So, what is the job that words do for us? I have been convinced by forty years of inquiry into the relationship of language to experiencing, that the primary purpose of thinking and saying is to carry forward the situations in relation to which we are thinking and saying.

Free of craving and grasping,
Skilled in language and its use —
Knowing the coming together of sound,
[With] what’s passed and what’s next —
One is said to be
“A great person, of great wisdom,
In one’s ultimate body.”
Dhammapada, verse 352. Translated by Christopher J. Ash

Is This What I Want to Do?

When we see the arising and fading of each experience – and more dramatically, see that there is nothing to get hold of as arising or fading – we see clearly that there is nothing to get hold of as ‘I’ or ‘mine.’ It’s clear, then, how stressful it is to pursue fictions about ourselves, others, and life.

Lately, for me, when confronting one drama or another in daily life, or one trivial pursuit, the question comes, ‘Is this how I want to spend this precious life?’ It’s no more than the snap of a finder, and I want to spend it arguing? Or, chasing ‘things’? I don’t think so. No thanks.

Bhikkhu Analayo in his latest book, ‘A Meditator’s Life of the Buddha,’ begins with the suggestion that we could consider, “how should we best formulate our own “noble quest”?

 

Deathless Speech

Practitioners, whatever there is in the world… whatsoever is seen, heard, sensed, and cognized, attained, sought after, and ruminated on by the mind: I know all that. I have fully comprehended all that; all that is known to a Tathāgata [one who comes and goes in suchness], but a Tathāgata does not serve that knowledge.” – The Buddha, Kālakarāma Sutta

The method of inquiry in the Buddhadharma is experiential. In an experiential inquiry, concepts serve us; they aren’t given a life of their own. If we give them authority over direct experience, we serve them.

In our project, here, ‘death’ is a dhamma word, which we don’t want to leave as a mere idea, or it will haunt us. It will dominate us, rather than serve us. We can get along – stumble through life – that way, of course – get through a life without giving attention to how it works in us. That doesn’t change the fact that a word’s meaning is in our living bodies. So, to ignore how the word ‘death’ lives in daily experience is actually detrimental to living.

This might be a strange idea: “how a word works in us.” Words work. That’s the point of them. Another way of saying this is that words have energy. And, in particular, they carry the energy of all the ways they have been used, in all the situations in which they have been used, by ourselves and our fellow speakers. (And, all the ways in which our animal forebears communicated – in gestures, for example.)

So intimate is the relation of words to experience, that words can help carry our life forward, affording us greater richness of experience. (It’s common, by the way, for meditators to be disparaging of words or concepts, but even this disparagement depends on concepts. If we haven’t mastered our mind, we tend to feel assailed by the verbal mind. Even this disdain for language, though, is an attempt – albeit unskilful – to carry one’s meditative life forward in a positive direction, isn’t it?)

Following Gendlin’s work on the relation of words to experience, the meaning of any word includes all the situations throughout your life in which you’ve encountered the word — all these experiences. So, your use of the word ‘death’ reflects the richness of your understanding of death in life.

Not experientially absorbing the word’s meaning, robs our humanity of its vitality and of a range of resources that we humans need, desperately. The meaning in the dictionary is not the living meaning. It can be a help in accessing our bodily experience, but it can’t give us the actual lived meaning of the word. (I treasure my dictionary – the Oxford English Dictionary is a major achievement of the English culture – but I’m realistic about its limitations. A dictionary’s power is in our contact with bodily experience – in the users of the language.)

If we settle into an unreflective use of words, we suffer. We all settle into this habit before our twenties, having mastered the necessary habit of inattention by then. “Necessary?”, you ask. To not be attentive to the relation of words to reality appears necessary, doesn’t it, so as to fit in with the consensus social reality? That’s where our ‘centre’ has become established – in social reality. Yet, what the Nikāya Buddha is saying (in our quote above) is that he has become independent of social reality. He got there by connecting with immediate experience, and noticing the role that concepts (name and form) play in shaping experience. I’ll go more deeply into this later, in a way that is grounded in everyday observation. That’s one reason for this inquiry, so that harmony reigns between our speaking and experience.

A practitioner named Vaṅgīsa said the Nikāya Buddha: “Truth, indeed, is deathless speech: this is an ancient principle. The good and the Dhamma, good people say, are established upon truth.”
– The Suttanipata: An Ancient Collection of the Buddha’s Discourses Together with Its Commentaries (p. 229). Translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Wisdom Publications.

To resolve our doubts around ‘death,’ and to know the deathless, we – ordinary people, not academics – can’t avoid the relationship of speech to experience.

A Culture of Awakening


Dwell, Practitioners, with your hearts well-established in these four placements of mindfulness. Do not miss the Deathless.

– The Nikāya Buddha.

Some people might think that the intention of ‘memento mori’ – of remembering death – is to make us think about what will come after we die. That would make it a ‘later’ thing, even if only a heartbeat away. But, remember, we are wondering, in this project, if the essence of death is an inner process; and, indeed, if that makes the essence of death right here, now.

If the presence of death is as close as your present breath, then it may not be the unmitigated disaster that your untamed thoughts have it; and there can be a sane and life-affirming way, a life-enhancing way, to find out if death is the ‘sacrament’ which some say it is.

However, if you take up the invitation (which the fact of death offers), there will be many voices – both inner and outer – who will try to dissuade you from disturbing the conventional trance of the false-’I.’ This is the consensus trance.

On the other hand, there’ll be those who’ll encourage you, when you need it. I remember, when despair about loss pierced me through in the mid-seventies, I had a chance meeting with a Catholic nun, one night, in a taxi cab. I asked her what she thought of the big questions, and of the quest for awakening. We talked for about half an hour, and I recall how she glowed with joy when she heard what my despair was about.

She didn’t lecture, try to convert me, or patronise me with ‘Christian’ advice. Instead she said, with palpable kindness, “Oh, yes, those questions are on the right track. Keep going. Don’t give up.”

Her warm heart gave me the support I needed right then, and the inspiration to treasure the journey. She affirmed that though such possibilities weren’t taught in the regular culture, there was a real transformation possible. I felt less alone, and fortified for the next steps in my journey.

It is tragic really, this trance going on right here in these bodies; tragic that we don’t encourage deep inquiry into experiencing. This is one reason why we don’t get our relationship with nature right, and are destroying our home, the planetary ecology that originally gave rise to us.

It’s tragic when we ask the big questions, and get nonsense in reply from others; nothing straight-forward. We should help each other with the truth, even when we don’t know truth. As poet Bill Stafford wrote:

“the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.”

The way forward, though, is always right at hand, even if we don’t see it. It’s as close as eating, walking, running, laughing, sleeping, spewing, crying, feeling sad or happy, lying down, or turning-somersaults. It’s at the heart of our life – with its actual processes of seeing, thinking, smelling, tasting, touching and feeling. At Sāvatthī, the Nikāya Buddha spoke about this to his bhikkhus.

“Practitioners, dwell with your heart well-established in the four placements of mindfulness. Do not miss the Deathless.
“What are the four? Here, a practitioner dwells contemplating the body in the body… feeling-tones in feeling-tones… psyche in psyche… and the dynamics of phenomena in the dynamics of phenomena – ardent, comprehending clearly, present, having removed hankering and distaste with regard to the world. Dwell, Practitioners, with your hearts well-established in these four placements of mindfulness. Do not miss the Deathless.”

The Deathless (Amata Sutta: SN V.41) Translated by Christopher Ash

(In this translation, I’m not entirely satisfied with the word ‘psyche,’ because it’s a word rarely used these days – and it can be associated with occultism. Nevertheless, I’ll use it until we explore more of what ‘mind’ can mean, and until the Pāli word ‘citta’ can take over. I’ll go into these distinctions, later, an explain why I used it here.)

So, it bears mentioning again: I am not primarily investigating physical death. I see that as a simple matter. Culture can complicate it, but not stop it. Death will, from that side, will be easy. The body will do that well: heart stops, breathing stops, life-systems close up shop. From that angle, death is a breeze.

Can you feel as I say that “It will be easy”? Can you sense what happens in your body? While I’m not wrong, something’s missing in that picture, right? As an experience – that is, in the psyche – there’s more to it, right? And there just might be something we can learn to prepare us. And, along with that preparation for physical death, what physical death means to us while we’re living: that depends on how we’ve met our psychic death.

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